Big Fish reviewed

You know … sort of.

Big Fish is a
movie about lies. Unlike most movies about lies, it does not involve
people lying about who they shot several times with a gun they later
disposed of in a suitably confusing manner.

It’s about the kind of lies you tell every day.

Sure, most people don’t tell stories that are patently bullshit, the way
Ed Bloom (who, depending on how old he is, is played by Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, some pre-teen kid, or a
baby who was at least part CGI) does throughout the movie. Most lies are
straightforward — the easier to carry them off. “I’m doing fine,
thanks for asking.” “I hit some bad traffic.” “I’m busy that night.”

These kinds of lies don’t take much effort because they’re not very
interesting from a narrative point of view. They don’t require much
imagination because, for instance, a traffic jam doesn’t leave much of
an impression in our minds when it happens for real. Being vague isn’t
unexpected even if you are telling the truth.

Ed Bloom takes a different path in Big Fish. When he lies —
and he almost constantly does — he turns it into a mythic story.
The kind of story nobody believes for real but likes listening to it
anyway.

The main body of the movie, where we get shown these tall tales, shows
how easy it is to fall in love with a lie. Especially one based on the
truth — just twisted, slightly, so that instead of a Ken Burns documentary, you’re
watching something larger, something… well, more satisfying. One
that’s perfectly rendered on-screen. You can feel the special effects
money floating around in this picture, but you can’t say exactly what’s
real and what’s fake, the way you can in Spider-Man. It’s what makes the movie
so magical.

His son William (played by Billy Crudup), however,
hates every story his father tells. He’s now a grown-up, works for UPI — one of those generally
faceless press organizations that grind out Objective Truth worldwide
— and he’s about to have a son of his own. He stopped believing in
his father’s stories a long time ago. The movie tells us that it’s
because he’s heard them so many times that they fail to even amuse, and
that Will is jealous of how his father always draws attention away from
himself. Personally, I think it runs a little deeper than that. Making
up stories just runs counter to Will’s temperament.

Now that his father is dying, Will has a new mission. He wants to know
the truth. What really happened. The UPI version of the story.

There’s a choice every writer has to make. Whether to write about what
they see happening outside themselves, or instead what they see
happening inside their own imagination. I guess you can call it fiction
or nonfiction if you want, though I think the difference grows finer and
finer. New Journalism, the child of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, borrowed the techniques
of the novel writer to tell a story that while nominally true —
assuming of course you believe a single word written by a drug-addled
sportswriter or a Yale graduate — is in essence something whose
content cannot be verified by a team of New York Times
fact-checkers.

The question is: how to tell the truth?

Is it better to name names, to describe the temperature and prevailing
winds the night your heart was first broken? It takes a lot of balls in
this era of lawsuits and 24-hour news channels and Internet archives to
say, “This happened to me, and this is exactly what I did.”

Sure, there are blogs, LiveJournals, and all other manner of personal
diaspora clogging up this beautiful Internet, but it’s hard to find an
honest word in any of them. Anthropologists will someday be able to
catalog the range of emotions Americans circa 2000 had regarding Taco Bell,
but will they be able to dig anything of value of this tar pit?

Will they be able to say what it was like to fall in love? What it
really means to lose your mother? How it feels when somebody really
hates you?

Maybe it’s better to be a little less honest. Consciously, I mean. Dress
yourself up in a costume, invent a main character’s name — but
please, don’t name them Ethan or Madison
and turn the world upside down. Upside down, not topsy-turvy. Upside
down implies symmetry, that the world has not lost its coherency.
Gravity may pull us up instead of down, but at least a rock weighs more
than a slice of bread.

It may well be that Halloween, with its crooked mirrors and odd
strangers dressed as vaguely familiar figures, is the only day you can
see things as they really are. The girl you’ve pursued without knowing
how, why, when — any of the things you’re really supposed to know
when you get down to the very serious business of seduction —
becomes a frog that’s trapped inside a cluster of rocks. You open the
path for it but the frog won’t come out. You hold out chocolate in your
palm but it still won’t come. You tell it a story and it listens
carefully, but at the end of the day, you’re just a fool talking to a
frog.

(Why a frog? Because they turn into fantastic things when you kiss
them.)

Your sister becomes a fairy princess. A friend you haven’t seen in many
years Persephone. Your boss becomes an ogre, a mad scientist, a jester in yellow and
pink — all of these things at once. Your father becomes a fish.

The question Will Bloom asks his father in this movie is: isn’t fiction
a cop-out? Isn’t escapism a terrible idea? Doesn’t it imply that you
wish your life was anything but what it is? Isn’t all just balsa wood
and baloney sandwiches?

Big Fish gives you an answer, but it’s much more subtle than
you’d think five minutes after you leave the theater. The truth is that
man cannot live on fiction or nonfiction alone. None of dying Edward’s
stories are all lies; none of them just bad dreams, little fibs
scribbled on the back of truck-stop receipts.

His stories take a different path than mine, but our destinations are
identical: the truth. What can’t be said every day. What we keep locked
up inside ourselves, what we won’t let anyone know we possess, not even
ourselves.


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Article © 2004 by Chris Klimas